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News Article

Victoria and George Cross holders: the world's most exclusive club

30 Apr 07

With just 12 Victoria Cross and 21 George Cross holders still alive, the VC and GC Association is arguably the world's most exclusive club. But what are they really like, these men who have stared death in the face and done their duty regardless? Report by Lorraine McBride.

Bridging the generations: Lieutenant Eric Wilson and Private Johnson Beharry, both holders of the VC [Picture: Steve Houlton]. Opens in a new window.

Bridging the generations: Lieutenant Eric Wilson and Private Johnson Beharry, both holders of the VC
[Picture: Steve Houlton]

The more Didy Grahame, the Secretary to the VC and GC Association, talks about her beloved Victoria Cross and George Cross holders, the more conventional they sound. Although they are all bona-fide heroes, Didy says:

"They are like a family. Courage is a given, but they are very humble people.They admire each other, but they think of themselves as unworthy."

Interviewed recently for a television documentary, Korean War veteran Bill Speakman VC said:

"The idea was to do the job you're trained to do as a soldier. You just can't bugger up, you know."

Private Johnson Beharry VC, who saved the lives of his colleagues on two occasions, might agree. The only time he felt daunted was when preparing to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Some recipients have felt the need to sell their medals, often to avoid rows between their children:

"By selling the medal they're taking the problem away," says Didy. "Now that they sell for such a huge sum, it is very difficult for someone to leave their medal to a regiment. The most important thing is that it is on display somewhere to serve as a future inspiration."

Didy began her job in 1970, introduced to it through a friend of her father, Rear Admiral Godfrey Place, VC. During committee meetings, she sat among heroes, such as Group Captain Leonard Cheshire.

Badges of honour: The Victoria Cross (left) and the George Cross [Picture: MOD]. Opens in a new window.

Badges of honour: The Victoria Cross (left) and the George Cross
[Picture: MOD]

The VC is 150 years old but only 1,352 men have received it.Queen Victoria introduced it during the Crimean War to recognise outstanding acts of bravery among servicemen. At first military leaders scorned the idea, fearing troops could become madly brave and breach discipline. The Queen was resolute however, and the medal was introduced in 1856. The GC followed in 1940, recognising courage in action but not under direct enemy fire.

The VC and GC Association was formed in 1956, following a series of stories about VC heroes who died in penury. Ex-Admiralty Secretary Duncan Sandys vowed that no hardup recipient should be prevented from attending the biennial three-day reunion. Always held in London, this starts with a remembrance service, and is followed by a party at St James's Palace.

Didy runs the association with a committee chaired by Jim Beaton GC, the Royal Protection Officer who was shot during an attempt to kidnap Princess Anne in 1974.

Didy says nothing really prepares medal-holders for the avalanche of attention that comes their way:

"They've gone through the experience of nearly losing their lives, and it will have been horrific. Suddenly, they're in the spotlight, and their lives are never the same again.

The number of VC survivors from the Second World War dwindles every year. Which is one good reason why this remarkable band of brothers should be treasured.

When the Queen marked her 80th birthday with a parade down The Mall, she led the Royal Family to their feet applauding the open-top jeep carrying VC and GC holders. Millions of viewers were moved. This did not surprise Didy:

"Courage of that level is the finest human quality," she says. "If we cease to recognise that, we have fallen down as a civilization. We should treasure and respect them."

All about George and Victorial Crosses

  • VCs are split roughly equally between officers and other ranks
  • Gurkhas and Royal Green Jackets are the most heavily decorated regiments
  • It is a myth that the VC outranks the GC. The latter is just newer
  • Chiefs of Staff will salute a private soldier awarded a VC or GC
  • The VC awarded to Australian Captain Alfred Shout sold for around ¬£400,000 at auction in 2006