The Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross is the highest award of the honours system and it was introduced by Queen Victoria in 1856 in order to honour heroes of the Crimean War. Since then it has been awarded to over 1,300 individuals.

One of the earliest recipients of the Victoria Cross was George Fiott Day, who was born in Southampton in 1820. In 1855 he was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy and during the Crimean War his brave actions ashore at Genitchi earned him recognition. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions two years later in 1857.

On 19 May 1856 Queen Victoria was in Netley to lay the foundation stone of the great new hospital that was to be named in her honour. Before the stone was laid, the queen placed in the ground something that resembled a time capsule, containing plans of the hospital, a Crimea Medal, some coins, and the first ever Victoria Cross. She would visit the hospital a number of times after its completion, and she personally awarded three Victoria Crosses there. Frederick Hitch was awarded one for his bravery at Rorke’s Drift in the Zulu War in 1879, and George Findlater and Samuel Vickery each got one for their actions in the attack on Dargai Heights in India in 1897.

During the First World War, six hundred and twenty-seven people received the Victoria Cross for showing valour in the face of the enemy, and once such recipient was Daniel Marcus William Beak.

Beak was born at 42 Kent Road in St Denys in 1891 and he began his education at St Denys School before heading to Taunton’s School in his teens. At Taunton’s he was captain of his house and was noted for his sporting ability. After he left school he became a teacher in Southampton for a while, but later moved to Bristol. Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914 Beak joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and in May 1916 he arrived in France. In January 1917 he led his men with ‘great courage’, assisting in the capture of an enemy line whilst setting ‘a fine example throughout’. For this show of bravery and leadership he was awarded the Military Cross. A bar was added in July, for ‘conspicuous gallantry during operations, when he continually dashed forward, under heavy fire, to reorganize the men, and led them on with great bravery through the enemy barrage and machine-gun fire’. A year later in July 1918, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order his actions in defending against an enemy attack.

Beak, already a decorated but no doubt war-weary hero, continued to prove his worth in battle. At the end of August and in the beginning of September 1918, his actions at Logeast Wood in France won him the Victoria Cross. The London Gazette published the following:

‘T./Comdr. Daniel Marcus William Beak, D.S.O., M.C., R.N.V.R.

For most conspicuous bravery, courageous leadership and devotion to duty during a prolonged period of operations. He led his men in attack, and, despite heavy machine-gun fire, four enemy positions were captured. His skilful and fearless leadership resulted in the complete success of this operation and enabled other battalions to reach their objectives.

Four days later, though dazed by a shell fragment, in the absence of the brigade commander, he reorganised the whole brigade under extremely heavy gun fire and led his men with splendid courage to their objective. An attack having been held up he rushed forward, accompanied by only one runner, and succeeded in breaking up a nest of machine guns, personally bringing back nine or ten prisoners. His fearless example instilled courage and confidence in his men, who then quickly resumed the advance under his leadership.

On a subsequent occasion he displayed great courage and powers of leadership in attack, and his initiative, coupled with the confidence with which he inspired all ranks, not only enabled his own and a neighbouring unit to advance, but contributed very materially to the success of the Naval Division in these operations.’

Daniel Marcus William Beak was personally awarded his Victoria Cross by King George V at Valenciennes on 6 December 1918.

King George V presenting the Victoria Cross to Daniel Marcus William Beak at Valenciennes on 6 December 1918. © IWM (Q 9759) Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194758

King George V presenting the Victoria Cross to Daniel Marcus William Beak at Valenciennes on 6 December 1918. © IWM (Q 9759) Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194758

After the war Beak was demobilised and on 2 April 1919 he was awarded the Freedom of Southampton. A lunch was held at the South Western Hotel, followed by a procession to the Palace Theatre on Above Bar Street. It was as if the whole town had come out to see Beak, who travelled along the route with the mayor, Sidney Kimber. The school children had been given a day off and so the streets were thronged with kids who waved flags, eager to see their local war hero. At the Palace Theatre a presentation was made by his former Taunton’s headmaster Seymour Gubb and Beak, in full military uniform, was the toast of the town. Beak made a speech in which he praised the important role Southampton played during the conflict, and in conversation with a Hampshire Advertiser representative he wished to express his thanks again, asking them to ‘please convey my sincere thanks to the people of Southampton for their great kindness’.

Whilst in town he visited Taunton’s, where he was mobbed by children wanting autographs, and he went to St Denys School too, where several of his old teachers still worked. Everywhere he went he was cheered and applauded.

He rejoined the armed forces in 1921, and during the Second World War he served in North Africa. Daniel Marcus William Beak MC DSO VC retired with the rank of Major-General in 1945. In 2018, a commemorative stone dedicated to Beak was placed in the ground in front of the Southampton Cenotaph. The cenotaph and the eight glass panels surrounding it list the names of nearly 3,300 men and women who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars and subsequent conflicts.

When the mayor Sidney Kimber presented a portrait of Daniel Beak to St Denys School in 1920, he told the boys it was unlikely that they’d ever win the Victoria Cross, adding that he hoped they would not have the opportunity to. He did not know that nineteen years later, the world would be plunged into the darkness of war once more.

Jack Foreman Mantle was born in Wandsworth in 1917 but moved with his family to Southampton in the early 1920s. Like Beak, he was educated at Taunton’s School. Like St Denys School, Taunton’s also received a portrait, and Mantle would have no doubt known all about his fellow Tauntonian’s bravery. He was a member of the St Paul’s Boy Scouts Troop in Southampton, and in 1934 he joined the Royal Navy.

When war broke out in 1939 Mantle went on convoy protection and was mentioned in dispatches for shooting down a German plane. He transferred to HMS Foylebank and in July 1940 the ship was at Portland in Dorset. The evacuation of Dunkirk had taken place just over a month before and it had left Britain vulnerable. On 4 July 1940 the Luftwaffe targeted Portland.

More than twenty Stukas screeched down upon Foylebank that day, unleashing devastation with every dive. Jack Mantle was on the starboard pom-pom gun, and he fought through the pain of injury with such bravery below the terrifying noise of the Stuka and amid the deafening sound of explosions. The London Gazette published the following:

‘Leading Seaman Jack Foreman Mantle, Royal Navy.

Leading Seaman Jack Mantle was in charge of the Starboard pom-pom gun when FOYLEBANK was attacked by enemy aircraft on the 4th of July 1940. Early in the action his left leg was shattered by a bomb, but he stood fast at his gun and went on firing with hand-gear only; for the ship’s electric power had failed. Almost at once he was wounded again in many places. Between his bursts of fire he had time to reflect on the grievous injuries of which he was soon to die but his great courage bore him up till the end of the fight, when he fell by the gun he had so valiantly served.’

‘Leading Seaman J.F Mantle’. Artist unknown, 1943. Charcoal and gouache on board. Image: National Archives

‘Leading Seaman J. F. Mantle’. Artist unknown, 1943. Charcoal and gouache on board. Image: National Archives

Mantle was just twenty-three years old when he died defending his ship. HMS Foylebank, having taken serious damage, sank the following day and 176 out of a crew of 298 died in the deadly attack.

Jack Foreman Mantle was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions, and he was buried at the Royal Naval Cemetery in Portland. “Naturally, we are tremendously proud of him,” his mother told a reporter from the Daily Mirror from the family home at 2 Malvern Road, Shirley. His old headmaster described him as a “quiet, unobtrusive boy who never shirked his duty.” News of his loss would have been met with great sadness in Southampton.

Front page of the Daily Mirror, 5 September 1940. Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of the British Library Board

Front page of the Daily Mirror, 5 September 1940. Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of the British Library Board

A few months after Mantle’s heroics, a Victoria Cross would be won in the skies over his house.

Twenty-three-year-old James Brindley Nicolson was a flight lieutenant in No. 249 Squadron. On 16 August 1940, a nice summer’s day, Nicolson took off from RAF Boscombe Down in his Hurricane and headed towards Southampton.

James Brindley Nicolson [in the middle] recovering from the wounds he sustained in his Victoria Cross action. © IWM (CH 1700) Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194765

James Brindley Nicolson [in the middle] recovering from the wounds he sustained in his Victoria Cross action. © IWM (CH 1700) Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194765

Flying towards Southampton at around 15,000 feet, Nicolson and his fellow pilots saw three Ju 88 bombers about four miles away. They headed towards them. Around three miles later they saw a squadron of Spitfires beat them to it, and the German bombers were easy pickings for the Southampton-designed aircraft. Nicolson was disappointed as he hadn’t yet fired a shot in anger at the Germans, and so he turned and climbed to about 18,000 feet over Southampton. It was then that four big bangs hit his fuselage, the loudest noises he’d ever heard. The bangs were direct hits from the cannon of a Messerschmitt 110. The first shell tore through the hood over his cockpit and sent splinters into his left eye, obscuring his vision. The second shell hit his spare petrol tank and set it on fire. The third shell tore off his trouser leg and the fourth hit the heel of his shoe, making “quite a mess of my left foot”, as he later put it. Just as he started to prepare to bale, cursing himself for his carelessness, the German fighter overtook him and whizzed right into his gunsights. The German pilot twisted and turned, and both planes entered a dive, as Nicolson opened fire and began to hit his adversary. “I remember shouting out loud at him, when I first saw him, ‘I’ll teach you some manners you Hun!’ And I shouted other things as well!”

Whilst all this was happening, Nicolson looked down at his left hand on the throttle and saw that it was consumed by fire. The skin was peeling off. With his cockpit engulfed in flames, Nicolson watched as the German plane went down, its right wing lower than its left. He saw it fade out of sight. It was then he decided to jump out, and whilst parachuting down he had to play dead as another Messerschmitt circled him.  He could see the bones in his left hand, and he saw that his right was badly burned too. His jacket was ripped to shreds, he only had half a trouser leg left, and blood oozed from the laces of his left shoe.

His ordeal was not yet over as he floated towards the ground, for an overzealous individual thought he was a German and shot at him. Luckily, the shotgun pellets, fired at a distance, did not do too much damage. He landed in a field at Millbrook and a crowd who had watched the dogfight soon gathered. Pilot Officer Tom Neil claimed afterwards that the ‘army’ shot him, and that they also shot at Nicolson’s wingman, Martyn Aurel King. A Home Guard soldier, Mr. R. W. F. Stanley, stated that he saw King’s damaged Hurricane fly overhead, and he then watched King bale from the aircraft. His parachute opened, but tragically the panel had split, and Stanley recalled seeing the pilot fall “like a stone”. King died landing in the garden of 3 Clifton Road, and his Hurricane reportedly crashed at Lee near Romsey.

Martyn King, the youngest of ‘The Few’ to die, was buried at Fawley. He was just eighteen years old.

Martyn Aurel King's grave at Fawley

Martyn Aurel King’s grave at Fawley.

Stanley asserted that it was either Canadian soldiers or members of the Royal Engineers that shot at Nicolson. He was one of the first on the scene after seeing Nicolson bale, after commandeering a van and following the parachute. Finding the wounded airman on the ground, he saw the ankle bone protruding through the flesh and the horrific burns across his hands. Whilst he was comforting Nicolson some soldiers appeared through the bushes with their rifles raised. Stanley drew his revolver and shouted at them to stop. He collared a frightened looking soldier who told him he was in the Royal Engineers based at Sparshatt’s garage. Returning to Nicolson, he found him composing a telegram to his wife – “sign it Nick, the wife will not worry” – and he was then rushed to the Royal South Hants Hospital. His Hurricane had apparently crashed on the corner of Bakers Grove and Rownhams Lane.

Nicolson recovered from his many injuries and in November went to Buckingham Palace where King George VI awarded him the Victoria Cross before conversing with him for several minutes about his experiences. Wing Commander James Brindley Nicolson would not survive the war. He was killed on 2 May 1945 when the B-24 he was travelling in caught fire and crashed into the Bay of Bengal.

In 2016, schoolchildren at Sholing Junior School designed, raised funds, and eventually unveiled a memorial plaque in remembrance of Nicolson. The memorial was placed on the side of a new building at the school, which itself was dedicated to the pilot. According to the deputy headteacher, the children thought it was an injustice that there was no memorial to Nicolson, who was the only member of Fighter Command to be awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War.

In 2019 children from the school organised another plaque to be installed in a more prominent position. Solent University offered them a location, and this plaque can now be seen at Guildhall Square near the Civic Centre. Thanks to the efforts of these children and their teachers, people can now pause and remember the bravery of James Brindley Nicolson, the sacrifice of Martyn King, and the courage of all ‘The Few’ who defended Southampton during the Second World War.

The memorial in Guildhall Square

The memorial in Guildhall Square.

 

Sources:

https://www.netley-military-cemetery.co.uk/

London Gazette – 18 July 1917, 26 January 1917, 15 November 1918, 3 September 1940

Hampshire Advertiser – 21 December 1918, 5 April 1919

Daily Mirror – 5 September 1940

Statements from James Brindley Nicolson and Tom Neil are from the 2010 book Last of the Few by Max Arthur

Statements from Mr. R. W. F. Stanley can be found in these two links from Sotonopedia: ‘A Day to Remember in 1940’ and ‘Shot down airman had to be ‘saved’ from own side’

‘Southampton plaque honours Battle of Britain hero’