Conspicuous gallantry in air operations
In the morning of 8 March 1943, Flight Sergeant Clarence (Reg) Green and his crew in Beaufort A9-181 took off from Milne Bay and flew north-west along the Papuan coast. They were detailed with an anti-submarine patrol for a merchant convoy headed to Buna. Just south of Oro Bay, the convoy was attacked by a formation of nine Japanese bombers and thirteen fighters. The flash of an explosion caught Green’s eye as the bombers sank the SS Jacob. He watched in horror as three fighters peeled off to strafe survivors in the water. Although outgunned and vastly outnumbered, Green banked his Beaufort into a steep turn and manoeuvred to intercept the fighters. He attacked with “such daring and skill” that the fighters broke off the strafing. He continued to patrol between the fighters and sailors until the Japanese aircraft left the scene. Praised for his “extremely courageous & gallant” conduct, Green was the first Australian to be awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (Flying).
Only ten Conspicuous Gallantry Medals (CGM) were awarded to Australian airmen during the Second World War. It was one of the rarest awards in the Imperial system of British honours. The medal was established in November 1942 to bridge the gap for non-commissioned airmen between the Victoria Cross and the Distinguished Flying Medal. The absence of an award between the two had been questioned by senior officers in the Air Ministry as early as 1940, when recommendations for awards first began trickling in. Not until August 1942 did the Air Council (the governing body of the Royal Air Force) propose that a new medal be created. Following considerable discussion – and some curious proposals as to the name and design of the new award – an existing naval decoration was appropriated instead. The original CGM had been created in 1855, during the Crimean War, to recognise the heroic conduct of naval ratings. In 1940, eligibility for the medal was extended to non-commissioned airmen attached to the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. So when the Air Council could not agree on the specifics of a new award, they instead swapped the white ribbon of the naval CGM for one of sky blue to create the CGM (Flying). This new medal, the Air Ministry advised, would recognise “conspicuous gallantry in air operations”.
The earliest awards of the CGM to Australian airmen were some of the most unusual. Reg Green was the only Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) recipient in the war against Japan, and his actions, like those of Sergeants George Downton and Arthur Blackwell (the next two recipients) were characterised by the saving or safeguarding of life. Downton was the air gunner of a Baltimore from No. 1437 Strategic Reconnaissance Flight, tasked with reconnoitring Cape Bon in Tunisia on 21 April 1943. Shortly after taking off, the Baltimore was intercepted by ten German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters. Downton’s gun soon seized up, so instead he helped to guide his pilot in taking evasive manoeuvres. Despite their efforts, the pilot was killed, and the Baltimore crash landed. Downton escaped the flaming wreckage only to dash back inside to extricate the observer. He tried to return once more, to rescue the rear gunner, but the flames and heat became too intense. Downton’s actions, and the fate of the Baltimore, were unknown to the Allies for two months, until it was confirmed that the surviving crew had been captured as prisoners of war.
Only two days later, on 23 April 1943, Blackwell was the navigator of a Lockheed Hudson flying a night-time anti-submarine patrol in the eastern Mediterranean. The crew spotted a U-boat on the surface and attacked with depth charges from a height of 200 feet. The U-boat returned fire. The first shell burst inside the Hudson’s cockpit, killing the pilot. After scrambling to close the bomb doors, Blackwell took over the controls. Displaying “exceptional leadership and captaincy”, he managed to fly the crippled Hudson back to Blida in northern Algeria. He ordered the crew to bail out, before ditching the Hudson out to sea. Blackwell was awarded the first CGM in Britain’s anti-U-boat campaign and was the RAAF’s only recipient to come from Coastal Command.
The awards to Green, Downton and Blackwell recognised their efforts to save lives. The CGMs that followed, however, demonstrated the significance accorded to bomber operations. Britain’s bomber force had been developed as an offensive weapon during the interwar period, and from early in the war it was used to strike directly at Nazi Germany (albeit with mixed results; see Wartime 93). More than 10,000 RAAF aircrew served in Bomber Command and, as Flight Sergeant Norman Williams well knew, flak was only one hazard faced by bomber crews.
Williams was an experienced rear gunner. Having survived raids on Berlin, Cologne, Turin and Hamburg and twice been awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal, he joined No. 35 Squadron RAF in March 1943 for a second tour of operations. On 11 June, during the outward flight for an attack on Düsseldorf, Williams’s Halifax was intercepted by two German night fighters. As the first closed in, cannon and machine-gun fire raked through the bomber. Williams was shot in the legs and stomach, his turret damaged and the starboard wing set alight. Despite being in considerable pain, he remained in his turret and continued to provide evasive directions to the pilot. When the second fighter came in for an attack, Williams fired off a long burst. The German aircraft exploded, the burning wreckage lighting up the sky. The Halifax was granted a momentary reprieve, so the crew dropped its bombs on the outskirts of Düsseldorf and banked to return home. The second fighter then reappeared. Williams took aim and fired. He continued firing as the fighter flipped over and fell beneath the clouds, leaving a trail of debris.
The Halifax lumbered home, but Williams’s turret was so badly damaged that he had to be cut free. The turret door, holed in some 37 places, is now in the collection of the Australian War Memorial. Williams spent the next two months undergoing treatment at RAF Hospital Ely, before returning to operations in August 1943. He remains the most highly decorated non-commissioned airman in the history of the RAAF.
The skill and courage Williams demonstrated on the Düsseldorf flight set the standard for future RAAF awards of the CGM. The next two went to pilots Flight Sergeants Francis Mathers and Daniel Rees for remarkably similar feats only weeks apart. On 22–23 June 1943, during a raid by 557 bombers on Mülheim, Mathers’ Halifax was twice hit by heavy flak. Two engines caught fire, three of the four petrol tanks were holed, and the Halifax struggled to maintain height. Mathers ordered all non-essential equipment to be jettisoned. The bomber was down to 1,500 feet when it was attacked by a Messerschmitt Bf 110 over the North Sea. On the Messerschmitt’s third pass, Mathers’ rear gunner caught the German fighter with an accurate burst of fire and it crashed into the sea. The Halifax limped on to the English coast, where Mathers brought the bomber in for a belly landing – much of the undercarriage having been shot to shreds.
Rees was recognised for his “superb skill” on two sorties. On 12 August 1943, during the outward flight for a night attack on Milan, Rees encountered problems with two of his Lancaster’s four engines. He nevertheless continued to Milan, successfully bombed his target, and exercised considerable skill to pilot the disabled aircraft back to base. Five nights later, during a raid by 596 bombers on Peenemünde in north-eastern Germany, Rees’s Lancaster was attacked over the target area by a Junkers Ju 88 night fighter. The German aircraft was driven off, and likely shot down, by Rees’s gunners, but not before the Lancaster had sustained significant damage to its hydraulic system, starboard tailplane and one engine. A petrol tank had also been holed and completely drained. Rees again showed perseverance and skill to bring his crew safely back to Britain.
Rather than any daring deeds during the bombing run, Mathers and Rees’s awards recognised their considerable flying ability and a heroic determination to return from the target. There is a certain curiosity to such awards, since the Air Ministry had sought, from at least 1941, to prioritise the recognition of heroism in pressing attacks against the enemy. The emphasis on offensive heroics stemmed (at least in part) from the views expressed by Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, the British Chief of the Air Staff. In considering the Victoria Cross recommendation for Sergeant James Ward – a New Zealand pilot, who had similarly demonstrated perseverance and courage to see his aircraft and crew return – Portal remarked that awards should more often go to someone “who displays exceptional valour in getting himself into great danger, than to one who shows equal bravery in getting out of … [a] desperate situation.” Portal’s views, although not strictly formalised as policy, were adopted as a general guideline.
Portal’s stance raised the standards required for the Victoria Cross but did not entirely supress awards for feats in returning from a “desperate situation”, as the CGMs to Flight Sergeant Geoffrey Smith and Warrant Officer Alexander Hurse attest. Smith was the rear gunner of a Lancaster tasked, on 15 February 1944, with a bombing mission to Berlin. Thirty miles from their target, Smith reported a Messerschmitt Bf 110 closing in from behind. He shot down the fighter but then felt explosive pain as cannon fire tore through the Lancaster. The Messerschmitt had been a decoy for a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 night fighter. The hydraulics in Smith’s turret were damaged and his right foot almost severed. Through the pain and shock, Smith manually operated his turret to drive off the Focke-Wulf. But with the Lancaster’s bomb doors also damaged, the crew decided to turn back from Berlin. The Lancaster sustained further flak damage on the return journey, but Smith refused to leave his post and continued to keep a look-out for enemy fighters. His right leg was subsequently amputated above the knee.
Hurse’s deeds came four months later, in another Lancaster, during an attack on railway targets at Nantes, France, on 10–11 June 1944. After bombing the target, the Lancaster was rocked by anti-aircraft fire – one shell exploded in the cockpit, severely wounding the pilot. Hurse, a bomb aimer with only the most elementary flying training, took over the controls. Assisted by the navigator, Hurse “displayed exceptional coolness, great determination and devotion” to fly the damaged Lancaster back to base and land safely. The perseverance of Smith and Hurse, under some of the most trying conditions, was deemed distinguished enough to warrant reward, despite the guideline on “getting out of … [a] desperate situation”.
The awards of the CGM to aircrew in Bomber Command highlight a distinct theme of perseverance and determination. These characteristics were exemplified by Flight Sergeant George Ferguson and Warrant Officer Kevin Dennis, the final two Australian recipients of the CGM in the war. Ferguson was the mid-upper gunner of a Halifax bomber on 23 February 1945 during an attack on Essen. The Halifax encountered heavy flak on approaching the target. A large piece of shrapnel crashed through the screen of Ferguson’s gun turret and lodged in his right cheek, knocking out several teeth and fracturing his upper jaw. Ferguson made light of the severity of his wounds and, assuring his pilot that he was fine to continue, the Halifax flew on to Essen. The wireless operator went to check on Ferguson during the return flight and, discovering the extent of his wounds, the crew made an emergency landing at an Allied airfield in Belgium. An oxygen mask had been used to keep Ferguson’s jaw in place; he spent the next two months recuperating.
Dennis, a wireless operator in No. 462 Squadron RAAF, showed similar endurance less than three weeks later. On 13 March 1945, Dennis’s Halifax provided radio counter-measures by jamming German wireless transmissions during a bombing raid on Frankfurt. On the return flight, the Halifax was hit by heavy flak. The flight engineer was killed, and both the navigator and Dennis were wounded. Shrapnel had struck Dennis in both legs, partially severing one foot. Although bleeding profusely, and in great pain, Dennis refused to leave his wireless set. He continued to receive and relay all messages until the Halifax made an emergency landing at Juvincourt in northern France. The Frankfurt raid had only been Dennis’s second sortie.
The war in Europe came to an end in May 1945, less than two months after Dennis’s Frankfurt flight. The CGM largely fell into abeyance after the Second World War, since there were few opportunities to demonstrate the high level of heroism required for the award. The medal was discontinued in 1993, and only one CGM (Flying) has been granted since 1945: to Corporal John Coughlan, an RAAF helicopter crewman, for his courage during two rescue operations in Vietnam. The rarity of the award gives an indication of why the achievements of its recipients are so unique.