Freelance writer from Cornwall
The Victoria Cross, first established by Royal Warrant in 1855 during the Crimean War and the first medal available to all servicemen regardless of rank, is a benchmark of military heroism. Its holders are considered almost a breed apart, a cut above their peers. The VC itself is unostentatious compared to many lesser decorations and this was intentional from its inception.
The VC is a simple bronze pattee resembling a Maltese Cross, 41mm high and 36mm across, weighing approximately 0.87 of a Troy ounce and fashioned from bronze cannon parts captured during the siege of Sevastopol. All VC’s are hand-made by respected London jeweller Hancock’s and have been made there since the medal first existed. The cross itself is suspended by a ring from a seriffed “V” to a bar ornamented with laurel leaves through which the ribbon passes. The reverse of the suspension bar is engraved with the recipient’s name, rank, number and unit. On the reverse of the medal is a circular panel on which the date of the act for which it was awarded is engraved in the centre.
Today all VC’s have a simple crimson ribbon but this was not always so. Until the formation of the Royal Air Force in April, 1918 any VC awarded to naval personnel (including the Royal Naval Air Service, Fleet Air Arm and Royal Marines) came with a dark blue ribbon. In May, 1920 all holders had to exchange their blue ribbons for the now-standard crimson so, while all VC’s are of great value, blue-ribboned ones are particularly rare. Aside from the different ribbon there’s nothing separating the ‘Naval VC’ from its crimson cousin. The criteria for earning one were exactly the same. What distinguishes VC’s are the people wearing them and the deeds that earned them, not the medals themselves.
A number of private collections hold Victoria Crosses, the largest being the Ashcroft Collection. VC’s, regardless of ribbon colour, are highly valued with top prices hovering around the £400,000 mark at the time of writing. The VC’s held by the Ashcroft Collection and the Imperial War Museum currently form a sizeable joint display open to the general public. Since 1879, more than 300 Victoria Crosses have been publicly auctioned or advertised. Others have been privately sold. Their value to collectors is clear from the increasing sums that the medals reach at auction.
In 1955 the set of medals awarded to Edmund Barron Huntley was bought at Sotheby’s for the then-record price of £300 (approximately £6700 in present day terms). In October 1966 the Middlesex Regiment paid a new record figure of £900 (approximately £14200 in present day terms) for a VC awarded after the Battle of the Somme. In January 1969, the record reached £1700 (£23700) for the medal set of William Rennie. In April 2004 the VC awarded in 1944 to Sergeant Norman Jackson, RAF, was sold at auction for £235,250. On 24 July 2006, an auction at Bonhams in Sydney of the VC awarded to Captain Alfred Shout fetched a world record price of A$1 million (approximately £410,000 at then current exchange rates). Captain Shout won his VC posthumously in 1915 for hand-to-hand combat at the Lone Pine trenches in Gallipoli, Turkey.
Several VCs have been stolen and, being valuable, have been placed on the Interpol watch-list for stolen items. The VC awarded to Milton Gregg, donated to the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum in 1979, was stolen on 1 July 1980 and has been missing since. A VC awarded in 1917 to Corporal Filip Konowal was stolen from the same museum in 1973 and was not recovered until 2004.
On 2 December 2007, 9 VCs were among 100 medals stolen from locked, reinforced glass cabinets at the QEII Army Memorial Museum in New Zealand with a value of around NZD$20 million. Charles Upham’s VC and Bar was among these. A reward of NZ$300,000 was posted for information leading to their recovery and conviction of the thieves, although there was much public debate offering reward money to retrieve the medals. On 16 February 2008 police announced all the medals had been recovered.
Returning specifically to the naval VC, many have been awarded to members of the Royal Navy but, with the First World War’s centenary in mind, I’ve chosen Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Warneford, RNAS, VC as an example. Warneford won his VC on June 7, 1916 while based in Belgium with 1 Wing, RNAS when he destroyed German airship LZ37 over Bruges. It took Warneford an evening’s deft flying, in an aircraft not designed for night operations, to out-climb LZ37 before diving steeply and dropping six 20-pound bombs over her hull. Seeing as his aircraft lacked machine guns and neither explosive nor incendiary ammunition were available in 1915, this was his only means of attack and almost cost Warneford his life.
The last of his six bombs struck the airship, instantly igniting the flammable hydrogen gas used to keep airships flying. In an instant LZ37 was diving headlong towards the ground aflame for stem to stern. Warneford’s aircraft wasn’t unscathed, either. The blast turned his Morane-Saulnier upside-down and fractured its fuel pipe, leaving him to make a forced landing behind enemy lines. Lesser pilots might have simply awaited capture but Warneford spent 35 minutes repairing the damage before taking off, in darkness from an unfamiliar farmer’s field, and returning to his base near the Belgian coast.
Sadly, Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Warneford, RNAS, VC, didn’t have long to celebrate his victory. On June 17, 1916, only ten days after winning his VC and having just been awarded France’s Legion d’Honneur by Marshal Joffre personally, Warneford took a passenger on a celebratory ‘hop’ around the local area. The Morane’s right wing collapsed leading to a crash. His passenger, American journalist Henry Newman, was killed and Warneford mortally injured. He was buried at Brompton Cemetary on June 21, 1916. His VC is displayed at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovil.