As the blitz brought a new kind of war to Britain, a new kind of award was needed to honour those civilians who showed ‘conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger’. Now, over 75 years on, many men and women, and even a whole country, have seen their acts of gallantry recognised by the award of the George Cross or George Medal.


September 1940 saw the advent of a new form of warfare—blitzkrieg—as Hitler’s Luftwaffe began the sustained bombing of cities and towns across Britain. Night after night, month after month, the citizens of the UK endured the German raids. The civilian services faced an almost overwhelming challenge in fighting the fires that the raids entailed, rescuing civilians trapped in bombed-out buildings and dealing with the many unexploded bombs that lay menacingly in the streets and factories in which they worked.

Conspicuous courage

It was a crisis that produced great acts of courage, which the UK honours system was ill-equipped to recognise. Not having been designed for civilians, the existing military awards were not appropriate. Most of them also stated in their regulations that they were for courage and gallantry ‘in the face of the enemy’ and, on the burning streets of Britain’s cities, there was no enemy, as such, to face.

His Majesty King George VI, a medal collector himself, soon recognised the problem and was keen that the oversight should be swiftly rectified. On 24 September 1940 the awards of the George Cross and George Medal were announced. The George Cross was to replace the Empire Gallantry Medal (EGM) as the highest gallantry award for civilians and be awarded in recognition of acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger. It was to take precedence over all other orders, decorations and medals, except the Victoria Cross. All holders of the EGM were immediately told that they could exchange their medal for the new George Cross.

The George Cross was supported by the introduction of the George Medal as the second level civil decoration of the United Kingdom. It was to be awarded in recognition of acts of great bravery. Although intended for civilians, both the Cross and the Medal could be awarded to members of the Armed Forces, in which case it was to be confined to actions for which purely military honours were not normally granted.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of the awards of both decorations were for actions taken during the Second World War. Many recipients were those who, with little concern for their own safety, had placed themselves in jeopardy to protect or save lives and property at home. Of course, the actions of those working outside Britain were also recognised.

The George Medal was awarded to a number of foreign and British nationals who operated escape lines or undertook sabotage operations in occupied territory. The George Cross was even awarded to an entire nation in 1942, when Malta was honoured for having resisted capitulating to the Axis powers while enduring the heaviest bombardment seen in the war.

Anti-terrorist operations

Since the end of 1947, just 59 George Crosses and 643 George Medals have been awarded. The majority of awards of the George Medal since then have been made to those personnel involved in bomb and mine disposal work and anti-terrorist operations. Many of these relate to the clearance of World War Two bombs, but the majority are related to the work of clearing terrorist explosive devices and, in particular, to bomb disposal duties in Northern Ireland.

Indeed, Lieutenant Colonel JRT Balding MBE GM, the current President of the Gallantry Medallists’ League—an organisation, like the VC & GC Association, dedicated to the welfare and memory of recipients of gallantry medals—was awarded the George Medal for his service as an Ammunition Technician dealing with terrorist explosive devices in Northern Ireland. Whilst serving on his third tour of duty, he manually neutralised the first flash-initiated improvised mortar bomb that was found in South Armagh. The bomb contained a 50 lb explosive payload and had a complex electronic back-up timer. He later led a two-day operation to manually dismantle an infrared-initiated 450 lb explosive device buried at the side of a road. The clearance was fraught with danger and complicated by the presence of a self-destruct mechanism intended to destroy all evidence of the firing mechanism, for which there were no counter-measures.

Several awards of the George Cross have been made for similar work in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last awards of the George Cross were to Staff Sergeant Hughes and Staff Sergeant Schmid—both of 11 EOD Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps—for the clearance of numerous improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan. Sadly Staff Sergeant Schmid was killed and his award was made posthumously. The most recent award of the George Medal was announced in January 2017 and recognised the bravery of Mr Martin Finney of the National Crime Agency in tackling and arresting an armed assailant in London.

Back in September 2015, holders of the George Cross and George Medal met in London to mark the 75th anniversary of the creation of the awards by laying a wreath at the statue of King George VI on The Mall. The ceremony was followed by a service of remembrance at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. There, His Royal Highness Duke of Kent, representing Her Majesty The Queen, presented a pair of specially struck and engraved medals to each Cross and Medal holder present. The medals are unique in that they are the only officially sanctioned commemorative medals to bear the effigies of the Queen and her late father. The 75th anniversary was an important reminder of the selfless courage and bravery of the many men and women whose heroism was such that it moved a king to give his name to a ‘new mark of honour for men and women in all walks of civilian life’.