Today I visited the Imperial War Museum London, where I looked around most of the exhibits but I specifically looked through the Victoria Cross and George Cross gallery, which is a small section of the museum that is often missed by visitors. Although it doesn’t boast any large exciting weaponry exhibits, it consists of a large collection of the many Victoria and George crosses given to people throughout the wars of the late 19th century and 20th century and fascinating accounts of the bravery that earned people these crosses.
The centrepiece of the display is the 13-pounder ‘Nery’ gun and the three VC’s won by its crew during the Battle of Mons. The stories of Boy First Class Jack Cornwell, Lieutenant J D Smyth (later Brigadier the Rt Hon Sir John Smyth), Corporal Charles Garforth, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire and other First and Second World War VC’s are told.
Among the George Crosses are those won by resistance hero Wing Commander FF Yeo-Thomas, the ‘White Rabbit’, and by Lieutenant Robert Davies, who saved St. Paul’s Cathedral by defusing a bomb which fell close by during the Blitz.
Related exhibits include a telescope used by Lieutenant Augustus Agar VC and a beret belonging to Colonel ‘H’ Jones VC.
The story of the defusing of a bomb that almost destroyed St Paul’s cathedral in 1940 was something I had never read about before and so I wanted to find out more. Lieutenant Robert Davies was born in Cornwall in 1900 and immigrated to Canada during the First World War, serving in the Canadian army. He returned to England in 1940, joining the Royal Engineers and it was on September 12th 1940 that he showed great courage diffusing a bomb that had fallen during the night in the vicinity of St Paul’s cathedral. The bomb took several days to dig up as it was lodged thirty feet deep in Deans yard and a fractured gas line made this even more dangerous. George Cameron Wylie was another member of the team that diffused the bomb and he was also awarded the George Cross. From the London Gazette 27th September 1940:
Lieutenant Davies was the officer in charge of the party detailed to recover the bomb which fell in the vicinity of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
So conscious was this officer of the imminent danger to the Cathedral that regardless of personal risk he spared neither himself nor his men in their efforts to locate the bomb. After unremitting effort, during which all ranks knew that an explosion might occur at any moment, the bomb was successfully extricated.
In order to shield his men from further danger, Lieutenant Davies himself drove the vehicle in which the bomb was removed and personally carried out its disposal.
The bomb was removed and finally detonated in the Hackney Marshes where it left a crater 100 feet wide so it is clear how close the cathedral came to complete destruction. The fact that this monumental building survived the blitz caused it to become an icon to inspire the determination of the people of London during the war. From the cathedral website:
St Paul’s Cathedral became an inspiration to the British people during the Second World War. The general population were subjected to the might of the German airforce’s ’Blitzkrieg’ attack on major cities across the UK. Throughout the ’Blitz’, St Paul’s miraculously escaped major bomb damage whilst buildings in the surrounding areas were reduced to rubble. Images of St Paul’s framed by the smoke and fire caused by the bombing became a symbol of the nation’s indomitable spirit.
I also found a fascinating first hand account from John Lindsay Thomas who was at St Paul’s cathedral the morning after the bombing on the BBC WW2 people’s war archive.
But not long after I had sat there, munching my sandwiches, when I suddenly noticed an approaching figure in the shape of a London “bobby” who was making swiftly in my direction!
“What are you doing here, sir?”, he said. “Didn’t you see the barrier tapes?”
“Yes”, I admitted, “but nothing seemed to be happening and so I thought it was just some kind of leftover.”
“Well, he said, you could call it that.” “Actually it’s a 2,000-pound unexploded bomb and you are almost sitting on top of it.” “If it goes up, it’ll take most of the Cathedral with it – as well as you !”
Needless to say, I thanked him roundly, apologised and left.
Within just a few hours afterwards, that same “UXB” had been partially defused and winched to the surface by either an Army or Naval Bomb Disposal unit, from its deep position alongside the Cathedral foundations. It was then driven, I believe by a solitary driver, on the back of a truck, through The City
and East End of London and out to Hackney Marshes where it was “blown up”. Sheer nerve and outright dedication come no higher in my esteem than that!
I think it’s sometimes more powerful to read true stories about real people and see real artefacts connected to them instead of just viewing objects from some unknown time and place during the wars. Also the sheer volume of accounts in this exhibit is incredible, considering these are only people whose bravery was actually recognised with a Victoria or a George cross – think how many more there must have been! There are many fascinating and moving accounts of extreme bravery to be read in this exhibit – almost too many to read all of them – so if you do visit the imperial war museum, this section mustn’t be missed.